“I was doing some plumbing work for a living and picked up a piece of pipe, blew into it, and it created a very good sound. So, I began building instruments.”
My father Yoshi Wada and I have been playing music together for the past six or seven years. It’s been exciting, challenging, and life-changing. The nature of our work varies—sometimes it’s clearly his, even historical in a certain sense, and sometimes it’s quite collaborative. We often joke that this is a family business, but there’s no money. While it may seem a little strange to interview your own parent, it’s also oddly intuitive, because you know what and how to ask. I felt it would be interesting to dig into my dad’s process as an artist and musician, and try to avoid rehashing too much biographical information. To do this, I focused on his 1985 record Off The Wall, recently reissued via my imprint, Saltern.
Tashi Wada Would you begin by talking a little about the time around Off The Wall and how the record came about?
Yoshi Wada In 1983 I received a DAAD artist-in-residence grant. This was a very good grant for artists to live and work in West Berlin for one year. Your mom [Marilyn Bogerd], you, and I went there as a family. You were less than one year old. We lived in Kreuzberg at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, which was close to the Berlin Wall. I had a nice big studio and a separate apartment. What a luxury it was. I was able to compose, write scores, practice bagpipe—all full-time. The studio was fairly narrow and had high ceilings and solid walls, which made it quite resonant. When I was practicing bagpipe, I could hear strong reflections of the sound from the walls. The acoustics of the studio inspired me to experiment and develop this sound. I felt I was hallucinating after a while because the resonance was so strong. Artists in the building complained sometimes because I was practicing too much and too loud.
Helga Retzer from DAAD asked me what I wanted to do for this residency. I answered that my wish was to build a small pipe organ and record an ensemble work. I visited Karl Schuke, the organ builder, and met Martin Riches, who lived in Berlin and worked on pipe organs and built other mechanical artworks. They helped me a good amount to learn how to build a small pipe organ. There’s quite a lot involved in building such a system. Anyway, my wish was realized and I was happy. I met Jost Gebers from FMP [Free Music Production] through Helga Retzer, and he gave me advice for recording. Off The Wall was recorded at Jost’s studio toward the end of my residency in Berlin. All of my friends and DAAD helped me to realize this recording.
TW It sounds like this work was made during an unusual time for you, and I think this shows. The music really has the feeling of an ensemble or band. Tight but also loose, or free, at the same time. You must have been rehearsing together often to reach this level of ensemble playing and sound. What was this process like, and did it affect the music you were writing?
YW Once I had the studio in Berlin I started to focus on writing the score for Off The Wall, listening to the tonality of the whole composition, and we began rehearsing as an ensemble. The work was more intricate and time consuming, but also more rewarding overall. This was an exciting new experience for me. After this period, I wrote more complex and longer duration scores.
TW The instructions above the graphic score for Off The Wall I & II read, “These compositions are written for bagpipes, adapted organ, and percussion. The detailed technique of the bagpipe and adapted organ shall be instructed by the composer. This is the improvisational work within the original framework.” What has been your approach to composition and improvisation and how they can be combined? Is the score for Off The Wall typical of how you write music?
YW Well, I’ve been performing since the early ’70s. My first instrument setup was Earth Horns with Electronic Drone. This was a simple improvisation because the pitch of the instruments was very limited. The composition didn’t require much structure or score. The duration was three hours. With Off The Wall, the score came first, and then I had to write instructions for the players. I wanted to create structure within improvisation—precise timings and durations. The structure of the music came first; the details of the music came second. It was necessary to write some details down, but it took time. Later on, in 1987 with The Appointed Cloud, I made a long duration score—sixty minutes, no intermission—and it was organized in a computer program system. That was an earlier time in computer programming.
So, basically the composition is first and the improvisation follows within the structure. It became much easier to lay out an entire piece, especially for long durations, as my scores developed.
TW I see. So composition structures the longer, more overall forms of the piece, and the details and nuances of the sound are brought out through improvisation. Would you say your scores are living things? In other words, can they be performed by other people? Or, do your recordings take care of the need for that?
YW I think it’s possible. But, what I was doing—the composition, the instrumentation—was very specific, and it was difficult to write everything down. It will probably sound different from the original, especially the improvisation. This reminds me of Morton Feldman’s scored piano pieces—each player has a slightly different interpretation.
TW Were you making any scores earlier on, when you were involved in Fluxus?
YW In Fluxus, when I was performing my own pieces, I didn’t make scores. It wasn’t necessary. My earlier pieces were simple instructions for the other players—for example, “Blow cardboard tube,” or “Lie down for five minutes.” But when I began working on Off The Wall, I did have to write things down to communicate with the other players.
TW FMP, the record label who originally released Off The Wall, mainly focused on free jazz and improvised music, as did India Navigation, who released your first record in 1982, Lament for the Rise and Fall of the Elephantine Crocodile. People probably don’t know this, but you actually started off playing jazz saxophone in Japan, right? How did that happen?
YW It was postwar Japan, and there was a big influence from American culture. I had good access to listening to well-known jazz players. I could find great jazz labels at the store like Blue Note, Impulse, and Atlantic. I was jazz crazy in my late teens and early twenties. American jazz players came to Japan, and I went to all their concerts. Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Cecil Taylor were my favorites. My mother got me a tenor saxophone, and I joined a small jazz band in art school. I was not good at playing, but I had a great time in my youth. I didn’t go to music school, so this experience helped me start to learn music.
After I graduated from art school in Kyoto, I moved to New York City. The Jazz scene there was still big and popular. There were a good amount of jazz clubs, like The Village Gate, the [Village] Vanguard, and Slug’s. Slug’s jazz club was located in the Lower East Side, in what was quite a spooky area at that time. But it was the cutting-edge jazz place. The music started at 10 PM and went on till 4 AM. People advised me not to go there late at night. But when people say not to go, it’s more interesting. I had to take a risk. It was a much more exciting place than the well-known jazz clubs in the West Village.
TW Did these early days playing saxophone and jazz later influence your approach to playing bagpipe?
YW Yes, practicing jazz improvisation helped a lot later on. It freed my mind. After a while though, I stopped listening to jazz and became more interested in earlier electronic music.
TW That’s an interesting switch. Were you making electronic music, too?
YW This was the late ’60s and early ‘70s. The technology of electronic music synthesizers was awkward. They were very big and heavy. But there was an electronic music studio and class at the New School for Social Research, so I attended and was able to use their big ARP synthesizer. I was able to compose my first electronic music, and I enjoyed this a lot. Around that time, I had listened to Karlheinz Stockhausen, Milton Babbitt, Morton Subotnick, and I met La Monte Young through Fluxus, through George Maciunas. La Monte had an early model Moog synthesizer, which had simple audio generators, custom-built by Robert Moog. I took some lessons from La Monte, and this was quite helpful for my composing.
TW Was that your first experience using this kind of technology?
YW Yes, I think it was actually. Around that time or a little earlier, there were the EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology) “9 Evenings” events, where John Cage, David Tudor, [Robert] Rauschenberg, and other artists were performing at the Armory building. This was quite new and exciting. Big events. I had already been interested in art and technology.
TW Through La Monte Young, you also met Pandit Pran Nath, with whom you studied singing. What attracted you to Indian Music?
YW The main appealing thing for me about Indian classical music was its accompaniment by a drone sound—tambura, harmonium, sarangi, etc. It made sense to have the constant drone sound as reference pitch—the main sound playing and going between or tuned perfectly. My study of Indian music started in the early ’70s with the great Indian master singer, Pandit Pran Nath. He would stay at La Monte’s studio and give lessons in North Indian singing. I took private lessons from him. I was convinced that taking private lessons was the only way one could learn this kind of music properly, not a classroom setting. Indian classical singing is very delicate and difficult, as is other instrumental music, including bagpipe. These are oral traditions passed on to younger generations.
I had a chance to hear and see a concert by Mohiuddin Dagar of the Dagar family, who were Indian court musicians. He played rudra veena, which is a large, old Indian stringed instrument made from gourds. The vibration of the sound is very low and deep. It’s an amazing sound. It blew my mind.
TW How would you describe the kinds of sounds or qualities of sound that interest you?
YW Well, low vibration, low frequency sound is an important element for me. The sound has to be perfectly in tune to start with and later on you can improvise, and so on.
TW How did you first start playing bagpipe? Did you seek it out? This is actually a question I often get about you…
YW In the late ’70s, I had the opportunity to go to Highland Games in Connecticut, and I met Nancy Crutcher. She was playing in the competition outdoors and sounded phenomenal. I began taking lessons from her focusing on Piobaireachd music, which is seventeenth-century, classical bagpipe music from Scotland. It’s a different style from marching, pipe-band music. It’s more intricate and difficult to play, and profound. I got really into it.
TW What about the sound of Piobaireachd, stylistically or otherwise, caught your interest?
YW With bagpipe instruments, the drone pipe sound is quite important. Without that drone, it doesn’t sound right. It’s quite fragile between the chanter pipe, double cane reed, and the drone pipes, especially when playing outdoors. It’s an art to keep things in tune under weather, and more challenging to play outdoors than in a concert hall. I like the ambient phasing of the bagpipe sound. It sounds ancient sometimes, but it’s quite alive and strong. To play Piobaireachd music and read Canntaireachd (the notation system) is very challenging. You have to sing in syllables and memorize. The notation is pretty long—some tunes are fifteen to twenty minutes long. Not many players can do this…
TW Earlier, you mentioned the organ you built for Off The Wall. What has been behind your ongoing interest in building your own instruments?
YW Organ building itself wasn’t an unusual thing. But it was challenging to get into this field. I wasn’t interested in guild-type skills, but rather what’s possible in terms of sound production. This was a humble production, and I was building it for my needs.
At the time when I began making Earth Horns, I didn’t want to use traditional instruments. I was doing plumbing work for a living and picked up a piece of pipe, blew into it, and it created a very good sound. So, I began building instruments using plumbing pipes and fittings. I was proud of this. Building homemade musical instruments from scratch requires spending a lot of time experimenting. Sometimes I couldn’t tell what I was doing. But when I finished, it started to show in the unique qualities of the work. It is art.
TW Do the unique qualities of these instruments come through for you in recordings?
YW I think you can hear this in recordings. For example, some of the instruments have a quite low pitch. The “pipe horn” instruments I was building were limited in terms of pitch. But playing them for long durations created an ambient feeling and effect that I liked.
TW What is the relationship between all of these things—art, sculpture, performance, music? Are they fluid for you?
YW I don’t think much about that, but it’s important to integrate all those elements and bring them up to a higher level—“interart.”
TW After Off The Wall and your time in Berlin, you returned to New York and started doing more installation work. Was this a conscious decision, or did it develop over time?
YW I wanted to change my routine. I was interested in the idea of not being present while the viewer experiences the sound. So I started to develop sound installations. The concept was to present what it’s like without me performing. It became anonymous compared to live-performer situations. This media was quite unknown at the time. It worked well, I think. It felt new.
TW What was interesting about this anonymity? Not having performers…
YW It was mysterious. The viewer and audience could not see live performers. I liked the effect and feeling of that. The Appointed Cloud was a large-scale installation at the New York Hall of Science in the Great Hall. I provided many organ pipes, a “pipe gong,” sirens, and other things, which were all acoustic instruments. They were controlled from a push-button booth that played sequences of sounds. A lot of young children came, and they went crazy pushing the buttons and enjoyed it quite a lot. I liked it myself, too. The space was huge and resonant, which also added a special feeling to the sound.
TW What has always stood out for me about Off The Wall is how personal and emotionally direct it feels, and this is something I’ve heard from a number of people. What do you hear when you listen to Off The Wall now, a little over thirty years later?
YW I listened to this recording recently and it’s not perfect, but I feel it’s still alive today. I made a good amount of effort to do this and it’s worthwhile. The music consists of conversations between musical instruments, with the players responding by improvisation within the frame. This ensemble work created more or less what I wanted to do within that limit. When I was practicing in my studio at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, I was able to build up these dense sounds until they were ringing in my inner ear and giving me strong hallucination effects from the resonance.
TW That seems very vivid, almost like a drug or dream—almost as though you remember the experience through the sensation of the sounds. When you say “hallucinations,” what do you mean?
YW I wasn’t taking drugs at that time. It wasn’t needed. Sound draws me into a dreamlike world, when the sound is in tune. It’s a very good effect and keeps me awake.
TW After a number of years in California, you’re living in New York again. What does it feel like being back?
YW It’s so transformed and dense, especially Manhattan. I lived in Manhattan for over thirty-five years before. It looks very different after fifteen years—a lot of younger people and very alive. It’s not an easy city to live in. I am old, but the city gives me stimulation and energy. It’s good for me.
TW Yes, you never seemed afraid of trying anything before, why start now…
YW Since being back in New York City, I feel more lively, and I’ve started to think about all kinds of things. For instance, I would like to revive my sound installation work. To be honest, it’s hard to keep up with our live performances, especially those with long durations. But life goes on, and I still want to continue and keep up my activity.
Yoshi Wada is a composer and artist associated with the downtown New York experimental art scene of the last fifty years. Wada was born in 1943 in Kyoto, Japan, studied sculpture at the Kyoto University of Fine Arts, then moved to New York in the late 1960s. In the early 1970s, he began building homemade musical instruments and writing compositions for them based on his personal research in timbre, resonance, and improvisation. His recorded works are published by the Japanese record labels EM Records and Edition Omega Point.
Tashi Wada grew up in New York and lives in Los Angeles. Wada presents his music often in collaboration with other artists including Charles Curtis and Stephan Mathieu, in addition to performing regularly with his father Yoshi Wada.